Over the past two weeks I have been monitoring the response to a question that I posed to fellow costume enthusiasts regarding the accuracy of historical detail in period films. It seems that many have an opinion on this topic and some are quite passionate.
I heard from professional costume designers who justified their creative anachronistic choices in the name of character development. While some stressed the interference of directors and other production designers on the project. I heard from vintage dealers who supplied through rental or sales, actual pieces or textiles. They blamed the lack of research on the part of the designer or subordinate who would ask for "the 1920's, but would be disappointed in the silhouette and choose the 1940's instead!
It seems many of us, at least those dedicated to the material culture of the past, have had very distracting and consequently, disappointing viewing experiences, by the inaccuracies of the production designer. I for one have had many such experiences and have often left the theater or turned the channel feeling frustrated.
The recent production of the Tudors is a case in point. I don't know which was worse. The choice of textiles for Renaissance England, which I could forgive, or the fact that Henry VIII never gained any weight! The popularity of the show among younger viewers, who usually accept anachronisms without question, infuriated the historian in me.
Does this mean that my interpretation is any more valid than the choices made by the production designers? It certainly does not. But I do have to admit, that as a costume historian, I know that the efforts of Masterpiece Theatre never disappoint, on the contrary, they usually inspire and the slowest of plot lines can be forgiven anything if the costuming is right.
For those of you who know me well, you know the impact that the film version of Margaret Mitchell's, "Gone With the Wind" had on me. I first read the book in the winter of 1974. In July of that year, it came to our local theater, the Roxie! Unable to find anyone who shared my desire to view the film, how many other 14 year old boys are interested in the trials and tribulations of a southern belle, I chose to go alone. For the grand sum of 50 cents, ironically the same price as the 1939 ticket, I settled in for what I was expecting to be a regular 2 hour show. I even got up to leave at intermission, upset that only half the movie had been filmed, when I overheard two women behind me talking about the splendor of the second half. Thank God for the empowerment of eavesdropping! By the time that the film had finished, like everyone else, I had cried and was sure that somehow Scarlett would get him back.
When my parents picked me up at the theater I rattled on about the magnificent costumes, certain that I had seen the most accurate representation of the period. So engrossed was I during the film, that the absence of many secondary characters and plot lines were hardly even noticed. I immediately began to re-read the novel that summer. I think that I have read the novel at least 12 times and seen the movie just as often.
In 1987-88, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art launched an exhibit, "Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film". I never saw the exhibit, but several years latter, Edward Maeder spoke on the subject to the Costume Society of Ontario. When he addressed the work of costumer Walter Plunkett, I naturally was very interested.
As part of his advertising campaign, Selznick released a number of articles on the pre-production planning of his epic film. His search for the actress to play Scarlett O'Hara is legendary. He used a similar approach around the costuming efforts of Walter Plunkett.
Looking for authenticity, or at least giving the appearance to be, Plunkett's travels in the deep south to source first hand examples of civil war era fashions, would be as familiar to the readers of the hollywood tabloids as the hype around who would play Scarlett O'Hara. It was a stroke of marketing genius and it succeeded in keeping the publics attention over a period of nearly 3 years from the publication of the novel to the premier of the movie.
Maeder, in his article, "The Celluloid Image: Historical Dress in Film", addresses many problems with the costuming efforts of GWTW and other period productions of this golden age of film. I won't go into them here, but suggest for those of you who are interested in the topic to try and find a copy of the exhibition catalogue.
I thought instead that it might be fun to see what would have happened to the movie if it were to be produced today by Masterpiece Theatre.
|Wardrobe assistant with Leigh's costumes for GWTW|
Selznick would later have this scene re-shot, actually five times! The white ruffled dress would be chosen as a replacement to make Scarlett appear more "virginal".
"No you ain't. You can't show your bosom 'fore three o'clock". But of course, some important character development would have been sacrificed.
Through some cleaver detective work, it is possible for the reader to establish a time line for one costume in particular. The only wedding gown to be created for the film, despite our heroines three marriages, is seen within the first 15 minutes of the picture. According to the text, Scarlett O'Hara comes down the staircase of Tara on her father's arm and in her mother's wedding gown. Mitchell provides the designer with no other details on the dress, but through careful reading, the date of the gown can be deciphered. At the opening of the novel, the reader is told that Scarlett is 16 years old, the same age as the city of Atlanta. In a latter conversation, she reminds her father that her mother was 15 years old when they married. When introduced to the character of Ellen Robillard O'Hara, we are told that she is 32. Even with my limited mathematical skills, I can still deduce that Gerald and Ellen were married in 1844. This is not apparent in Plunkett's creation. The sleeves allude more to 1835 as does the squared waistline and applied trimmings. Seen in photographs, the skirt was obviously cut for the support of a hoop crinoline, which was left off. The trailing length, in the hands of a master designer, would have been a stroke of genius given the height variation between mother and daughter, but sadly, I don't think that this was taken into consideration.
Plunkett's creation is currently being restored for the 75th anniversary of the film.
In the publicity material regarding the costuming for the film, it is stated that Walter Plunkett was given the license to re-create the period accurately by having many of the textiles custom woven. Armed with clippings from the hems and seam allowances of vintage pieces, provided by the heirlooms of southern families, he was able to contract for the yardages from Pennsylvania mills.
Scarlett's choice for Ashley's homecoming and Christmas dinner was a little more successful. One of the few times we see Leigh in a sleeve that appears to have any period authenticity.
Supporting characters had their share of challenges as well. Who can forget Belle Watling? In one scene, where she demonstrates on camera her love for Rhett Butler in a tearful good bye, her gown is actually sleeveless! Little puffs stand in, but look carefully.
Barbara O'Neil faired better as Ellen O'Hara, as did Alicia Rhett as India Wilkes. Apart from the obvious in the size of the skirt, O'Neil could have been just as effective on film in the dress below from the collection of the "Kyoto Costume Institute".
At some point in the film, either just before her marriage to Rhett or during it, we should have seen something more in keeping with the examples below.
One attempt by Plunkett that I feel failed terribly is the example worn when Scarlett and Rhett are walking their daughter Bonnie in her carriage. What was Walter thinking? If their was one dress best left in the wardrobe department, that was it. It is a shame that he wasn't familiar with the example below from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This garment, by Emile Pingat, is certainly more in keeping with the refined sense of design attributed by Mitchell to her character, Captain Rhett Butler.
From my best calculations, the novel ends around 1875-76. With Scarlett now in mourning for the death of her daughter, she pays a final visit to the death bed of Melanie Wilkes. A woman for whom she has held in contempt for 16 years! Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh give one of the most poignant screen performances ever. For this scene, Leigh's collar has been exaggerated but the silhouette of her bustled gown is convincingly accurate. Once again, I turn to the collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute for greater accuracy.
In the course of his career, Walter Plunkett designed costumes for 250 period films. A pre-Law graduate, he had no formal training as a costume designer, but worked in a few movies as an extra. In his lifetime, he would be considered by his contemporaries as an expert on historical fashion. Was his work a detriment to the movie or did it enhance the plot and character development. Whatever your opinion, I would welcome it. I personally would not have had the movie any other way. It's very excesses are what formed and shaped my desire to learn more about art, design, costume and history. The power of the moving image can have a lasting influence, and for me, Selznick's production of Gone With the Wind blew like a hurricane through my life.